Anti-integration rally in Little Rock in I Am Not Your Negro (photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

When I was in my 20s, I read a piece of fiction that called out white Americans with a broad brush: those in rural counties and in cities, working class and bourgeoisie, all of white America that gladly took part in the murder of black men and women in the quiet of night by way of lynch mobs. The passage accused the people who committed these extralegal atrocities of being cowards who knew that what they were doing wouldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the law, the judgment of their own friends and neighbors, or even the bright light of day. So they went about their fearful, filthy business cloaked by darkness, and occasionally by masks and white sheets. Up until that point in my life, I had never read such a damning critique of an entire group of people. It was a righteous, insightful, and ruthless appraisal. These people were (and are) clearly poison to the idea of a commonwealth, a civil society. I don’t recall the name of the author (perhaps Mark Twain), but I remember thinking: how can anyone read this and not be persuaded that America has a sickening cancer right in the shining face of every Miss America? Yet, oddly enough, people seemed to go about their business anyway, as if the piece had not be written or read.

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo © Dan Budnik, courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Now I am in my 40s and watching a newly reinvigorated James Baldwin via director Raoul Peck, who, with his documentary film I Am Not Your Negro (2017), delivers polemics even more brutal. They come through the voice of Samuel Jackson reading from an unfinished text by Baldwin, who observed that “American lives are empty, tame, and ugly,” despite presenting themselves as “fat, sleek, and happy.” The film is a visual diary of the historical moments Baldwin experienced and wrote about, combined with Peck’s intuitive grasp of analogous or metaphorically related imagery that resonates with Baldwin’s observations. The most startling visual transition comes after Jackson articulates Baldwin’s revulsion to the preening, fake, and in his words “obscene” version of human relations one finds in Doris Day and Gary Cooper musicals. Following a scene in which Day almost swoons against a kitchen appliance while imagining domestic bliss with her partner, the film jump-cuts to a series of black bodies hanging from trees. A gaggle of whites look around as if caught unawares at a midnight county fair, with their prizes ready for the picking.

While I could talk more about the film’s astute use of narrative strategies and filmic techniques, I feel the need to focus on Baldwin’s words. In the film, he refers to white America as “monstrous” at least three times. He explains why: because people in the US are caught between narratives of who they actually are and who they want to be, and narcotizing, populist television circulates a story that always emphasizes the latter.

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro (photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Most of the time, in my hearing, when cultural critics talk about the difficulties with US culture — the deeply embedded racial hatred and fear, the misogyny, the myopia, the ignorance that seems to have no end — they say, “The problem is … ” But Baldwin rightly identifies several problems with our culture, which has the off-putting effect of making his critique more honest but less digestible. As he points out: Americans care more about their profits and safety than they do about their morality; they bear so much reality getting through their (relentlessly competitive and hostile) days that they feel they have too much reality, and therefore long for the fantasy of who they want to be; the church, one of the key institutions that should help provide the social glue between them, “did not hear or listen to the credo that we should love one another as I have loved you.” Ultimately, he insists, Americans are unwilling to bear the responsibility of their own lives, and because of this deep moral apathy, they have become monsters.

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro (photo © Bob Adelman, courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

When I saw I Am Not Your Negro, I left the theater angry and full of despair because I am black and a man who has been called “nigger” to my face by my own (white) supervisor on the shop floor of a prestigious clothing brand, when I was the best salesperson they had ever had. But it’s not even that which makes me despair; it’s that long ago I read an articulate critique of white America that was less demanding, and it failed to move the populist needle. It makes me feel that nothing I can do will make a goddamn bit of difference. Look at the racist buffoon we’ve elected to the highest executive office in the land. Clearly, we are nowhere ethically. Obama’s election and reelection were only small forays into addressing our profoundly reprehensible history — forays from which we have now fully retreated. Does all this mean that we have become impervious to critique, that we are now no longer able to mature and become wiser?

In Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, a book that somewhat mirrors my own childhood, the mother of the central character, John (who is a version of Baldwin himself), recalls a romantic partner she had before she met her child’s father. This man, Richard, was an avid reader, someone who used books to educate himself despite being brought up poor in the 1950s and ’60s South. One day, he was caught up in a police dragnet looking for a black man who allegedly committed a crime, and at that time, any black man would do. Though he was innocent of any malfeasance, he was snatched up, held in jail, and beaten. He came out so angry and distraught, he could only respond by turning that anger on himself. He hung himself, because he knew that anytime, for any unreasonable reason, whites might just take away his agency again.

Crowd gathering at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington in I Am Not Your Negro (photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

The film left me with questions that I suspect won’t be answered in my lifetime, because successive generations of Americans have been brought up with the conviction that they need never understand anyone, not even themselves. How do I live with that? What happens when enough of us feel that we would rather die than be subject to arbitrary violence and the capricious whims of those with political, social, and police power — or when enough of us refuse to move until we have received an answer to that crucial question: why did you need to invent a nigger?

Directed by Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro is now playing at theaters around the US.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...